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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Yoga Meets Science: Focus

While reading the September 2013 issue of Yoga Journal, the title of the month's wisdom section, "On the right track: When questions arise in your meditation practice, expert advice can help you go deeper," immediately caught my attention ( Asana, or yoga poses, are fun and challenging in an exciting and easily accessible way for me. The more subtle aspects of yoga, like meditation, are much more difficult for me, and I struggle with sitting still for even a couple minutes. I read on with the hope of learning some new insight that may help me enjoy meditation more or attain greater benefits from the practice. Unfortunately, I was just one paragraph into the article when it  stirred up a fair bit of vritti (distracting thoughts) for me that stole my attention from the rest of the article.

I could paraphrase, but I think it would be easier to just quote the paragraph here:
"Why meditation works is something of a mystery. But it's no longer a secret that meditation is good for us. Neuroscience can now show us what happens in the brain when we meditate. (Among other things, brain areas associated with stress slow down, and parts of the brain associated with feelings like joy, peace, and compassion become active.) The evidence that meditation triggers positive changes is overwhelming. In addition, we are beginning to recognize that meditation is a natural state, a current of awareness that wants to open up to us if only we'll let it."

My issue with this paragraph is that it is so vague. It basically says that it is hard to understand how meditation helps us, but science says it is true, never mind what science. This paragraph, despite citing that proof exists, gives me the same feeling that other meditation articles have: that meditation is good for you in a spiritual way. This leaves me wanting more. Having a scientific mind, I can't help but question these types of proclamations. I have been in so many yoga classes where a teacher will claim some magical power of a pose that I can't help but analyze and consider whether it is biologically possible. This steals my mind away from my practice and both annoys and frustrates me. Yoga does have scientifically proven benefits and when teachers spout seemingly magical, unsupported benefits it makes yoga seem less legitimate.

This frustration led me to research the scientific benefits of meditation. In the Yoga Sutras, there are eight parts or "limbs" of yoga: Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. The practices do not need to be practiced one at a time in this order, but in order to fully accomplish the 8th limb, Samadhi or understanding, it is rather important to have practiced the first 7 pretty extensively. The Yamas and Niyamas are guidelines for living a virtuous life. Asana is the physical practice of yoga poses and Pranayama is the control of the breath. Together, Asana and Pranayama prepare the physical body to support the mental work of practicing Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. Pratyahara is the first step in yogic meditation and involves sensing the world around us without attaching thoughts and feelings to our perceptions. This practice can help eliminate external distractions in further meditation. Dharana, or concentration is the meditation that I practice and also for which the most scientific studies have been conducted. Dharana is meant to train the mind to focus on one thing at a time and to allow the practitioner to decide what the mind focuses on. This is a skill I certainly have not perfected, but that seems more than worthwhile. Imagine a life without succumbing to distraction and procrastination? Dhyana, or contemplation, and Samadhi, understanding, do not necessarily require perfect concentration, but it would probably help. Understanding the science behind Dharana makes the practice even more attractive to me.

Dharana, the 6th limb of the 8 limbs of Raja Yoga, is introduced in Sutra 3.1 of The Yoga Sutras. Patanjali defines Dharana as the “binding of the mind to one place, object, or idea.” In practice, Dharana is often described as concentration on a single thought, object, experience, or emotion. When the mind inevitably wanders, the practitioner gently redirects the mind back to what it is focusing on (Carrera, 383, 371). Especially in the modern world, the mind is constantly distracted and rarely gives its full attention to any one thing. The mind is distracted by birds flying by, cars honking on the street, cell phones ringing, emails dinging, our memories, concerns, worries, and anxieties; the mind is constantly giving attention to a multitude of distractions. In order to fully understand something or truly complete a task in a quality manner, it is necessary to focus and give undivided attention. The more distracted one is, the more difficult it is to learn and produce. Dharana trains the mind to be able to focus amid a plethora of distractions. It is like exercise for the mind (Jerard). The chronicle of anecdotal evidence of practicing Dharana having a positive effect on the mind and life of the practitioner is available from 2400 years ago and probably beyond. As evidence, consider this excerpt from the Bhagavad Gita (6.6): “As you gain control of your mind with the help of your higher Self, then your mind and ego become your allies. But the uncontrolled mind behaves as an enemy.” In modernity, scientific method has been applied to try to explain and better understand the benefits of Dharana and other meditative practices. The brain is so complex, however, that the benefits of Dharana and other types of meditation are not yet completely illuminated. But, scientists are learning more about the brain everyday and eventually even the tiniest subtleties of meditation will be scientifically understandable.

There have been upwards of hundreds of scientific studies investigating whether meditation truly improves focus and attention, and not particularly surprisingly, the majority of the studies have found that it does (Williams 2009). In peer reviewed psychological and medical journals, studies have found decreased heart rate, breathing rate and oxygen intake during meditation, showing that meditation produces a state of calmness and decreased metabolic rate (Corby 1978). Cognitive studies have shown that practitioners of concentration meditation, such as Dharana, perform better on attention based tasks and are not as easily distracted by external stimuli (Chan & Wolcott 2007). Practitioners of concentration meditation are also able to detect and observe fast moving stimuli that non-practitioners do not perceive (Lutz et al. 2008). Additionally, concentration meditation has been found to provide supplementary benefits in the treatment of stress, mood, and anxiety symptoms, as well as epilepsy (Chiesa & Seretti 2009). Rigorous scientific study has shown that the anecdotal evidence of the benefits concentration meditation are real, but how they manifest is a much tougher question.

There are several techniques used to analyze the brain and brain function. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging or fMRI measures the amount of oxygen in the brain as a result of cerebral blood flow. It is assumed that the region that is most active at a given time is the most oxygenated at that time. Researchers are able to estimate the amount of neural activity in a location in the brain during a specific activity and therefore can determine which regions are functionally associated with different behaviors. fMRI is one tool that has been used to try to understand what is happening in the brain during meditation. For example, fMRI was used to analyze the brains of practitioners of concentration meditation while they silently repeated a two-phrase mantra in time with their breath. As a control, the same participants' brains were also analyzed while they sat quietly and thought up lists of different types of animals. Compared to the control scenario, more mental activity was seen in the anterior cingulated cortex during meditation. In later stages of meditation, more activity was also seen in the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes than in the control state. These results suggest meditation activates locations in the brain that are commonly associated with attention and control of the autonomic nervous system (Williams 2009).

Electroencephalograms or EEGs measure brain activity by recording brain waves which are a result of electrical activity in the brain. There are five types of brainwaves categorized by their frequency measured in Hertz (Hz) or cycles per second. Delta waves (1-3Hz) are the slowest waves and are characteristic of a very deep sleep. Theta waves ( 4-7Hz) are seen during a light sleep or when we are feeling drowsy. Alpha waves (8-10Hz) are present during relaxed awareness, when we are not involved in deep thought. Beta waves (13-29Hz) are present when we are actively thinking, alert, and attentive. Gamma waves (30-80Hz) are present when we are mentally integrating and processing complex sensory information (Williams 2009). Changes in brain wave activity associated with different types of meditation has been actively studied since the 1970’s. One early study (Corby et al. 1978), found that when concentration meditation practitioners sat in lotus pose (cross-legged with the tops of the feet placed on top of the thighs) and focused on a mantra, there was an increase in alpha and theta waves along the central midline of the brain. Control participants relaxed to the point of falling asleep, but the pattern in brain wave activity observed in the meditation practitioners was not observed in the control participants. Those that were meditating maintained a state just on the cusp of waking and sleeping. Additionally, the change in brain wave activity lingered after meditation was discontinued, which was not the case for control participants. This study suggests that meditation is accompanied by a decrease in distracted thinking that is carried with the practitioner after ceasing to meditate. 

Increased theta and alpha activity along the central midline of the brain and the frontal lobe explains the sense of calmness felt when meditating, but these regions are also associated with attention and mental concentration. When advanced meditation practitioners are compared to novice practitioners, those that are advanced are more able to produce and maintain alpha and theta rhythms in the midline and frontal cortex of the brain. This suggests that advanced practitioners of concentration meditation have refined their brain processes to such a point that they are capable of controlling brain processes in a coherent and voluntary manner (Williams 2007). Furthermore, in a study published in Nature by Draganski et al. (2004), results were shared that suggest regular practice induces training related changes in the grey matter of the cerebral cortex. These changes are similar to when someone learns a new complex skill, like juggling. The changes observed in the cerebral cortex grey matter suggests there is a level of flexibility in how the brain is structured and that it can actually be restructured through persistent practice (Draganski et al 2004). This plasticity of brain matter and the reshaping and restructuring of our brains through conscious effort is a hot topic that is currently being investigated in regards to many different illnesses. Since meditation can tap into our brains natural ability to restructure itself, meditation may be used in treating brain disorders in the future.

According to scientific literature that has been published thus far, Dharana, or concentration on a single object, experience, or feeling increases attention and focus through practice. Dharana activates parts of the brain associated with attention and creates low frequency brainwaves associated with relaxation. Perhaps most importantly, advanced practitioners are more able to create and maintain these brainwave patterns. Dharana is essentially training for the brain to cultivate an ability to maintain focus and resist distractions and the science clearly supports this claim.

So, sit down and try it! Find a quiet space with minimal distractions. Sit in a way that will allow you to stay seated with a long, virtuous spine for a period of time without being physically uncomfortable. Some suggestions are kneeling with a pillow between your butt and heels, kneeling on a pillow, sitting cross-legged on a cushion or with the sit bones on a folded blanket and the legs on the floor. Anyway that you feel supported and comfortable is the right way to sit; it is absolutely not necessary to sit in lotus to meditate. Choose one thing to focus on. I usually choose a simple word like "Om" or "Shanti" and repeat it over and over in my mind. You can focus on the one thing in whatever way you like, as long as you keep that one thing in mind. Whenever your mind wanders, notice the transgression, and bring your attention back to your object of meditation. It helps to set a timer so that you are not wondering how long it has been. Start with 1 minute a day. You will likely be surprised how hard it is to focus for just one minute! This is why Dharana is a practice. Keep at it and you will likely notice the benefits discussed in this post. 

Works Sited

Carrere, Jaganath. “Inside the Yoga Sutras. ” Integral Yoga Publications, Buckingham, Virginia; 2006.

Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: A review and meta-analysis. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15, 593 – 600.

Chan, D., & Woollacott, M. (2007). Effects of level of meditation experience on attentional focus: Is the efficiency of executive or orientation networks improved? Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 13, 651 – 657.

Corby, J. C., Roth, W. T., Zarcone, V. P., Jr., & Kopell, B. S. (1978). Psychophysiological correlates of the practice of Tantric Yoga meditation. Archives of General Psychiatry, 35, 571 – 577.

Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Busch, V., Schuierer, G., Bogdahn, U., & May, A. (2004). Changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature, 427, 311 – 312.

Jerard, Paul “Yogic Insights- The Significance of Dharana” August 4th, 2009 4/15/2012.

Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12, 163 – 169.

Williams, Bryan (2007) ”A Glimpse Into the Meditating Brain” 4/16/2012.